Public speaking tips from “The Silent Crowd,” a Sam Harris essay – VOICES | The Podcast

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Listen in as my friend Ben & I exchange public speaking tips. Last summer, Ben told me about an essay on public speaking by an author we both like, so I figured I’d bring him on the show to talk about it over drinks.

The essay is “The Silent Crowd” by Sam Harris, & I encourage you to check it out online to follow along ( The skills needed for public speaking can be easily extrapolated to any art form that puts you in front of other people, like singing or acting, so I’d recommend the essay to performers of all kinds.

The essay starts with a bit of history. Sam Harris points to Thomas Jefferson—a president who only spoke publicly a small number of times—and notes that while it was once possible to be a successful public figure without having to get up in front of people, the world doesn’t work like that today.

“It seems like in every profession now, if you get far enough, eventually you’re going to have to be in front of a crowd,” Ben agrees early on in our conversation.

Harris admits in his essay that he was once mortified at the thought of giving a talk. The fear of public speaking is uniquely terrifying and is “more than ordinary anxiety,” he writes. “[I]t lies closer to the core of the self. It seems, in fact, to be the self—the very feeling we call ‘I’—but magnified grotesquely. There are few instances in life when the sense of being someone becomes so onerous.”

Public speaking tips

Ben & I discussed our own relationships to public speaking (Ben with relatively little experience, me with a fair amount of it) & which aspects of it are the scariest for us. I shared a little about how my concert banter has evolved, too: “I remember at my very first show—I was probably fresh out of high school, 2010 or 2009—I prepared every word of my [concert] banter. And I wrote it out, & I typed it up, & I printed it, & I brought to my gig, & I put it on the piano. That was extremely illuminating because I realized very quickly that you can’t have notes for your banter; you either gotta have that memorized completely or you gotta go off the cuff. … I’m at the point now where I don’t even let myself prepare banter. I make myself do it off the cuff.”

Then we explored Sam’s 7-point list of public speaking tips:

(1) Admit that you have a problem
(2) Get some tools
(3) Agree to speak when the opportunity arises
(4) Accept your anxiety
(5) Prepare something to say
(6) Prepare to say it
(7) Say it

(Again, you’ll want to read the essay for yourself to make sense of these suggestions.)

Our favorite public speaking tips: film yourself practicing; craft speeches using a precisely written intro & outro but a loose middle; don’t overuse PowerPoint. We also chatted about narcissism as a cornerstone of charisma, improv groups as a confidence builder, & mastery of your subject matter as the key to true ease in front of a crowd.

At the end of the day, Ben says, “The physical sensation of anxiety is no different than the physical sensation of excitement or of some other similar sensation: it doesn’t say anything about you as a person. It’s no different than a pain in the knee or a stubbed toe; it’s a feeling of energy. And you can choose to interpret that energy however you want, but it doesn’t have to mean something about who you are as a person. I think that’s a really liberating thing to hear about.”

Recorded on January 12, 2017, in Madison, WI. Original theme music by Alma Cook.


More from Sam Harris

• “The Silent Crowd” by Sam Harris
• Guided meditations:
— 9-minute meditation:
— 26-minute meditation:
• Lying by Sam Harris:
• Sam Harris & Joe Rogan discuss lying (I call it “the one where Joe is wearing a paper boy hat”):


• Robert De Niro’s shaky Oscar speech from 1981